Natalie Pramenko accepting an award as FBLA Administrator of the Year last week.
Natalie Pramenko accepting an award as FBLA Administrator of the Year last week.

Battle Lines Are Drawn Over Future of Arapahoe High School Principal

Tonight, May 2, the Littleton School Board will hold a special meeting at Arapahoe High School, which has been embroiled in controversy since a group of parents raised concerns about the administration led by Principal Natalie Pramenko following a school shooting, multiple suicides, the arrest of two teachers on sexual assault beefs and an alleged rise in drug use and bullying.

Despite such issues, Pramenko has significant support, as exemplified by a school rally held shortly after news broke about a survey being conducted by the aforementioned Arapahoe High School Community Coalition, not to mention a Change.org petition labeled "We Stand With Arapahoe Admin" that's been signed by more than 1,300 people to date. And while Littleton Public Schools Board of Education president Dr. Jack Reutzel says he'll be listening to complaints about Pramenko with an open mind, the district published a post touting her "administrator of the year" award from the Future Business Leaders of America on April 25 — the same day as a board meeting at which the report containing the survey was formally submitted.

The coalition's Jessica Roe doesn't think this timing was a coincidence. In her view, "the district's playing games."

The board gave AHSCC only a few minutes on the 25th. But Reutzel promises that at tonight's meeting, Roe and company will be able to go into much greater detail about their findings, which maintain that 73 percent of more than 1,100 respondents support "changes to staff leadership at Arapahoe High School."

These figures puzzle AHS parent Mandy Conn, who's in Pramenko's corner.

"I don't know who these parents are who are against the administration," Conn says. "I'm at the school all the time — I've volunteered there every week for the past year — and when this survey came out, we were all asking, 'Are you unhappy?' Because I don't know anybody who feels that way."

She clearly hasn't met Roe.

A longtime journalist and former 9News executive producer, as well as a private investigator, Roe used her skill set in assembling the document, which serves as the centerpiece of FutureOfAHS.org, an elaborate website. Through interviews, she learned that four mental-health employees left Arapahoe High in 2017, with Pramenko's approach allegedly a factor. She also used an open-records request to confirm that Pramenko subsequently took part in a pair of leadership training sessions over a two-year period (at the district's behest, she believes).

Roe, an AHS graduate (so is her husband) who has one student at the school and another one "in the pipeline," estimates that a couple of dozen parents are coalition members. She stresses that their collective goal is to uncover the truth in the hope that the information will help improve an institution that's very close to her heart.

The meeting will take place at Arapahoe High School.
The meeting will take place at Arapahoe High School.
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"The media keeps interviewing random students in crosswalks who have no idea what's going on," notes Roe, who plans to speak at tonight's meeting. "They think we're attacking Arapahoe, and they're pissed about it. But that's not what we're doing. We gathered data to see if our hypothesis was correct, and we found that it was."

Pramenko took over as principal at Arapahoe High in 2012, the year before attendee Claire Davis was murdered by a fellow student in a school shooting. Three years later, in October 2016, a report released about the incident was highly critical of assorted procedures at the school, citing communication breakdowns and red flags missed.

The district took steps to address such shortcomings. "We put a million dollars into ongoing mental-health resources," Reutzel points out — and with eight suicides in recent years, he says, "I wish we could put another million in. But we're hamstrung by the way public schools are funded, so we're partnering with other organizations that we feel are geared toward suicide awareness and prevention," including Sources of Strength.

Student suicides are hardly unique to Arapahoe High School, as Reutzel underscores. "Cherry Creek has had several this year," he divulges. "And there have been private schools that have had suicides this year, too. This is a huge concern for everybody in education. But you can't lay all of these suicides at the feet of one individual, because it's such a complex problem. You can't say, 'It's the school's fault' or 'It's the church's fault' or 'It's the theater-owner's fault.' It's a societal problem for the whole community."

As for how Arapahoe High has dealt with these tragedies, Lindsey Collins, another pro-Pramenko AHS parent, offers compliments for an unusual approach to the most recent death: "They didn't have classes the day after, but they opened up the school so that the kids could talk to the teachers, who are really one of a kind; they love those kids as if they were their own. And they also let the kids bring their dogs in if they wanted to, and they loved it. That was one of the best things they could have done."

The two teacher arrests presented a different kind of challenge, especially since they happened in such quick succession. In January, AHS drama instructor Ian Ahern was charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust over an incident that had allegedly taken place five years earlier. Then in March, Sarah Porter, who taught Spanish and coached volleyball and track at Arapahoe High, was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault on a child by someone in a position of trust, and of sexual exploitation of children/pornography/obscene material related to allegations involving a sixteen-year-old student. The tips about both teachers came via the Safe2Tell system.

Still, Reutzel doesn't see any evidence that Pramenko did anything wrong in relation to Ahern and Porter. "Our HR department does a thorough investigation of teacher applicants," he says. "We vet all these folks through central administration, and if they'd had a previous charge or arrest, that would have been picked up, and they would never have received an interview. But that wasn't the case for either of them. They cleared background checks and were presented to Ms. Pramenko as viable candidates."

Dr. Jack Reutzel is the Board of Education president for Littleton Public Schools.
Dr. Jack Reutzel is the Board of Education president for Littleton Public Schools.

Such problems were among those raised by people who took the survey, which asked respondents to identify themselves by category; the breakdown was 498 parents of current students or attendees within the past six years, 316 alumni, 292 current students, 182 community members, 79 parents of students who attended seven years or more ago, 35 Littleton Public Schools employees, nine AHS employees and 68 who chose the tag "other." They also touched upon matters of Arapahoe High culture, including the charge that Pramenko regularly exhibits favoritism toward athletes, cheerleaders and pupils with a grade point average higher than 4.0.

For Reutzel, these gripes are suspect in part because survey-takers were allowed to remain anonymous; he concedes that the district's own AHS questionnaire, sent out after the post-school shooting analysis, was anonymous, too, "but we have the ability to send it to every student and parent email account connected with Arapahoe High School. Their survey doesn't have those safeguards."

For her part, Pramenko-backer Conn says she's seen no evidence that Arapahoe High School cares less about teens with challenges. She's had two kids at AHS with dyslexia, and she was duly impressed by staffers' efforts to put accommodations in place that have allowed them to reach their full potential. And Collins credits Pramenko for pulling the school together after the shooting, when cutting and running would have been a lot easier.

"If you have the guts to stay after something like that, and commit your life to it, I can't see how that's a bad thing," she says. "And the kids really care about her." The first school day after a 9News piece about the current dust-up, she recalls, "over 150 kids came in with flowers for Ms. Pramenko. I was like, 'Wow.' That shows you how much support she has."

The contrast between these stories and the ones cited in the survey could not be more stark — and Roe has a warning should they be casually dismissed. "If the district doesn't take this seriously, and if we don't see action or acknowledgement about the severity of these findings, we will complete a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education and likely open a civil-rights complaint with DORA [the state's Division of Regulatory Agencies]. We're not going away."

The special meeting about Arapahoe High School gets underway at 6:30 p.m. at the Arapahoe High School Theatre, 2201 East Dry Creek Road. Click for more details and to read the Arapahoe High School Community Coalition report.

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